When the plane hit the ground, it broke into three sections—the tail, the middle and the cockpit, which was completely crushed. Both Captain Darwish and his co-pilot were instantly killed on impact. Arafat quickly ordered everyone to search for the wounded and then to evacuate in case of fire. As the men began leaving the twisted metal carcass of the plane, they were blinded by a violent desert storm awaiting them. Sand was churning all around them, twisting and turning, pushing them along into the howling darkness.
I was working in my office in Tunis when I received a call from a radio operator. He had picked up a distress message from Arafat’s plane somewhere over the Libyan desert. I called Colonel Muammar Qadafi’s aide, and asked him for news of the President’s plane. He told me they had lost contact. My worst nightmare was confirmed.
I weighed the odds, knowing that every minute was crucial. My most important call was to the White House. I asked to speak to President Carter explaining that it was an urgent matter. I was transferred to the security office and once my identity was confirmed, I was put on hold. A few moments later, Mrs. Carter answered the phone, informing me that the President was asleep. After I had explained what had happened, President Carter was soon on the line. The President informed me that he would do his best and would get back to me in fifteen minutes. Those fifteen minutes felt like a lifetime.
Bassam Abu Sharif was a senior advisor to the late Yasser Arafat and currently serves as press officer of the PLO. He is the co-author, with former Israeli intelligence officer Uzi Mahnaimi, of The Best of Enemies about their roles in Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts. A member of the National Council of Palestine, he divides his time between Amman and Ramallah.